June 28, 2018
Is cod liver oil a health trend of the past that has recently fallen out of favour or have we missed something in it that’s worthy of our attention?
Cod liver oil was esteemed as a nutritional powerhouse as well as both an internal and external remedy. Back in the 1830s, cod liver oil was being used to treat tuberculosis, rickets, bone diseases and even some eye conditions. Then in war-torn times, where malnutrition was rampant, cod liver oil was given to malnourished children with significant results. Its popularity grew and was routinely spooned out to children in the 1960s as a source of vitamin D in northern Europe where sunlight is limited during their long winters. “Bottled sunshine” then became a term coined by a cod liver oil manufacturer and was heavily marketed to new mothers.
So is perception different from reality for cod liver oil?
Cod liver oil is extracted from the liver of the cod fish. A huge percentage of it is vitamin A and D and it contains less omega-3 fatty acids as compared to regular fish oil, which is obtained from other parts of the fish. The compositions of fish oil and cod liver oil are actually quite different even when they are derived from the same fish. In fact, cod liver oil contains less EPA and DHA (around 8% EPA and 10% DHA) than fish oil (around 18%EPA and 12%DHA). Since the anti-inflammatory, heart, brain and eye benefits come from omega-3, it makes sense to choose fish oil over cod liver oil if one intends to supplement for these reasons.
Apart from having a lower omega-3 content than fish oil, cod liver has potential health risks associated with it. There have been concerns that cod liver oil, bottled or in capsule form, can weaken bones and cause birth defects because of its very high levels of vitamin A. A Norwegian study of middle-aged women, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that those who took cod liver oil as children are twice as likely to have low bone mass as women who did not. During pregnancy, mums should be cautioned against taking cod liver oil as too much vitamin A can potentially cause birth defects, making a high-quality fish oil is the safer option. In fact, responsible cod liver oils manufacturers should carry a warning about not exceeding the safe upper limit of 10,000IU (3000mcg) Vitamin A per day during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Another dilemma about cod liver oil is purity. Since cod liver oil is made from livers, the organ responsible for detoxification, there is an even greater concern about contaminants (such as PCBs), even though the oil is supposed to be purified.
In a nutshell, fish oil is a better choice if you are after omega-3’s (EPA/DHA’s) health benefits. Although cod liver oil is able to give you more vitamin D than your regular fish oil, we should not overlook the potential risks of the high amounts of vitamin A in cod liver oil. The potential health risks posed by the high vitamin A content in cod liver oil outweigh its health benefits. Furthermore, vitamin A deficiency is uncommon so there is rarely a need for supplementation, unless directed by a healthcare professional. If you are looking to reap the health benefits of omega-3 and vitamin D, a better option will be high-quality fish oil with added Vitamin D.
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